Fun and Games are Overrated: Winners and Losers!



My kid Ian’s wrestling season is finally over. He came in 4th in county this year which is a dramatic improvement from last year, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled with this finish. In fact, on match day, you would’ve thought that his puppy had died after he lost his 3rd place match. Last year was hard wrestling as an inexperienced freshman on varsity. During the off season, he went to a conditioning camp run by the legendary J. Robinson (aka J. Rob) that had trained 99 state champs from just last year and hundreds of state finalists. Mr. Robinson was an NCAA champion wrestler, a former Army Ranger (the Army special forces that are supposed to be tougher than the Navy Seals), assistant coach to the legendary Dan Gable at Iowa and now Minnesota University’s head coach. He has coached the phenomenal Brock Lesnar who played in the NFL, won the NCAA wrestling championship, won the UFC heavyweight title and now wrestles for WWE. J. Rob’s also a fine Christian man.

The entire conditioning camp was modelled after Ranger school. Kids would call home to quit this camp. The work included not only all day wrestling, but early morning long runs before breakfast just like the military, various feats of fitness and strength, a half marathon and a Navy Seals challenge run by REAL Navy Seals. The routine lasted till almost midnight and the next day, up at 5am, the kids started all over again, just like bootcamp. Ian was determined to do better than last year. So, he put himself through the J. Rob camp. Besides that, Ian had started following my 5-day-a-week powerlifting program to up his strength. To ensure that he would also get good enough cardio, he even sprinted for 20 minutes after dinner everyday, rain or shine. That’s how he made it to be the 4th best wrestler in our 2000 square mile area. In fact, if he managed his championship tournament well, he could’ve gotten 2nd or 3rd place. There’s always next year, but aspiring champions don’t think like that. They aren’t satisfied with loser medals. The day after the season ended, he’s back in the gym.

There’s nearly no sport in high school that’s more demanding than wrestling, not football, not basketball, not track (I’ve done track and football and my relay team was the 3rd best in the region in the 4×100), not even soccer (I’ve played that in high school too). It’s an individual sport that pits one man against another in the most primitive form of combat, and there’s no teammate to blame for losses. Since everyone you compete against is already the tough guy in his school, top placement has to come by clear wins. Top placements don’t come easily. To be better than most of the other guys (who are already toughest guys in their schools) in the toughest sport in high school demands complete commitment. My kid wasn’t satisfy with just being the best wrestler in his school so that he could represent the school; that goal is for losers. He sought to win county right from the beginning of the season. Getting a 4th place finish was no comfort to him. He was hoping to get further, but perhaps he can go to state that next year, but that process starts now. Being satisfy with mediocre accomplishments is for losers, not for winners.

Cary Kolat, a legendary wrestler of international status, told a good story about when he was a boy. My kid told me that he thought that I was old-school hardcore until he heard this story. Although Kolat’s father wasn’t a martial artist like I am, he trained Cary throughout the summer. In one instance, his dad was trying to help him get out of the bottom position by teaching him the Grandby roll. It’s a simple but effective technique based off the front roll. In those days, there’s no youtube to give instruction. His dad found some illustrations to teach the steps to the Grandby roll. In one summer day, they did this for 7 hours. 7 hour! His father would sit there and watch and look at his sheets of paper illustration to see if the young Cary’s roll matched the drawing. If not, he would force him to correct himself until he got it right. Needless to say, 7 hours could be an overkill, but go ahead and ask Cary Kolat now and see if he knows the Grandby roll. He can probably do it blind or in his sleep. I recall an interview with the gifted former UFC champion George St. Pierre. He stated that in order to be a champion, he had to be willing to endure the boredom of training. I’ve competed in powerlifting and had set a state record. I’ve also earned black and brown belts in various martial arts. I can testify to the utter boredom of training. Some days, you just don’t want to be in the gym, but you get in there, and you get it done. The life of a champion starts with having a heart of a champion. I’ve heard one coach say that you can teach technique but you can’t teach desire.

In our day and age, the above stories and ideas aren’t popular. Having a heart of a champion is farthest from most Christians’ minds. The above stories could be inspiring, but they’re “too hard” or “too boring.” Think about how many of us have read a difficult and challenging book recently. How many of us read and serve others regularly? These and many other disciplines don’t usually make it to our top to-do list. We live in an age where people look for the entertaining, esoteric, strange and fun stuff. We look for funny memes. We love short sound bites that give us simple, useful, immediate and witty solutions whether from blogs, from memes, from Facebook pages, from self-help TV programs or some quick-fix book. Everyone gets a participation medal. No one gets left behind. Everyone’s a winner. The biblical fact is, not everyone is a winner. Some are plain losers! If we continue in our modern-day trend of fun and games, we’re producing an entire generation or three of losers.

Here’s what St. Paul had to say, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” (1 Corinthians 9.24) He continued to talk about the boredom and hardship of training, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” The way to get disqualified in the ancient games include not training and not being ready as well as breaking the rules. There’s no way around hardship. Hardship is part of the Christian mission for Paul. It’s about doing all one can do and then see if one can do more in order to achieve one’s life mission. There’re many things that distracts us, but most of us, our attitudes and character often fail us. Who enjoys discipline? Not many. Those who do will be the elite of their professions, and the Christian life is no exception.

J. Rob was addressing the congressional military sub committee one time, and he was talking about recruitment of the Navy Seals. The Seals pride themselves on a dropout rate of the program that’s around 75%. J. Rob had a different opinion. He said that perhaps a program that had this many dropouts showed that the recruits were the problems. He said that if they recruited among kids with high-level of wrestling experiences, the dropout rate would only be 20% because barring life-threatening and crippling injuries, the wrestler isn’t going to give up before the whistle. He’ll keep coming! I wonder how many Christians are wrestlers and how many are the other kinds. Paul’s athletic metaphors illustrates that there’re winners and there’re losers in the faith. Those who are winners will always discipline themselves not to be the dropout. The losers take the easy and fun way because training is never fun, but training is what brings out the champion in all of us. A true champion doesn’t care if training is boring or tough because without hardship, there’s no winning. Without desire, there’s no champion.


Huffington Post Review and Response to My Book

Professor Greg Carey, a Jesus scholar, reviews and responds to my book Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives.


“Jesus’ parables — vivid short stories and comparisons like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Laborers in the Vineyard — make up the most distinctive element of his teaching. Lots of Jesus’ contemporaries used parables, but nearly all interpreters agree that Jesus’ stories stand out for what one commentator called their capacity “to tease [the mind] into active thought.” Almost all of them open themselves to multiple interpretations, leaving interpreters to scratch their heads and argue with one another for centuries.

Perhaps our first challenge involves asking the most productive questions. A new book by Sam Tsang sets itself apart by asking each parable: “What if things went otherwise?” Most parables present readers with a “hook,” a moment when the story jumps off the tracks of predictable and ordinary behavior…” Read more here.

Trumping Two Corinthians: Right Text, Wrong Outrage



The Donald made the news again. Surprise! This time he made news in Liberty University. The report happily states that a Liberty University student corrected Trump when he claimed, “We’re going to protect Christianity. I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame … is that the one you like?”  There’re plenty in blog sphere and in the audience who so gladly and smugly note that it’s “SECOND” Corinthians not “TWO” Corinthians. After all, there’re more than TWO Corinthians. They were may Corinthians in Corinth.


The pitiful thing about this episode is not so much about what Trump said because we’ve come to expect outrage. I’m not even shocked to learn that another conservative Christian college has chosen to align itself to the most extreme right of the political spectrum. I’ve come to expect it. I’m even less shocked that he was giving a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when many respectable educational institutions take the day off while Liberty conducts classes. Liberty, after all, has never been about “political correctness” anyway. What I find most pitiful is that a college that’s supposed to teach about the Bible has students who only focus on the “Two versus Second” instead of Trump’s clear misquotation of 2 Corinthians 3.17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom.” (NET)


The verse has nothing to do with freedom. Paul was talking about the glory of the new ministry in Christ in light of the ministry by Moses. He was involved in this ministry and the freedom he was talking about was regarding the freedom from Torah-observation among gentile converts to his gospel (3.3, 6, 7, 9). It is possibly Paul’s reformulation of Exodus 34.34 with a similar formula of “Now the Lord … ” Unless Trump was arguing about how gentiles fit into God’s greater plan for Israel or how Paul used certain phrases of the Hebrew Bible to express  his ideas, he shouldn’t be quoting anything from that section of the Bible. While we can’t expect any of Trump’s quotes to be accurate, I’m shocked that no one at Liberty caught this and made it an issue. I suppose if Trump’s agenda fit the political leaning of the college, all’s forgiven. What would be worse however is if people who were taught in that college, a bible-teaching college, can’t even understand that Trump was misquoting scripture. That degree of ignorance is what allowed politicians from both sides to snow well-intentioned believers in the church.



Right text, wrong meaning, anyone? As a result, we reap the consequence of mistaking the petty for the main issue by majoring in the minor. If we don’t go for political correctness, can we at least go for scriptural correctness? Then again, if we have arrived at scriptural correctness, we may have to change our ways of thinking and our behavior. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?


By the way, in England, where I studied for my PhD in the New Testament, they call it “Two Corinthians”. Just saying …

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 9: Luke 6.43-49 Modern Implications



I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 15-16 talks about the implications for the modern readers in terms of what Jesus taught in Luke 6.43-49.


The present teaching by Jesus implicates the modern faith community. Recent news tells us that one former Christian band member quit Christianity altogether and declared himself an atheist. While we can’t judge his faith journey, his reason for quitting was due to the fact that the organized Christian religion has such stringent rules that mask struggles. He has a point here. Jesus prefaced the present teaching with a discussion about accurate judgment that makes allowance for the judge to be wrong. The wrong judgment that hasn’t been born of correct vision will inevitably lead to a community built on ground without foundation. When hard times come, such a community will crumble. Indeed, many segments of organized Christianity have fallen on hard times. Even though many churches are getting bigger, the number of Christians hasn’t really increased in many parts of the West. Many Christians think that the problem is secularization. Perhaps they’re half right, but quite often, the church needs to look at what Jesus said. Poor judgment would destroy the community. If the church has been living in ignorance and apathy during easy times, then when hard times come, she will crumble. Jesus’ teaching speaks to today’s church because the church has suffered bad PR for quite a while by selective morality without a broader and more comprehensive obedience.

One of the mistakes preachers and Bible study leaders make is to see the set of teachings as merely about listening and doing. When it’s all about doing what Jesus said, the preacher dooms Jesus to the role of a moralistic sage and nothing more. Another mistake some preachers make is to harmonize the present set of sayings with Matthew 7:15–27. While it is possible to see crossover meanings from the two passages, Luke’s teaching differs in emphasis. Matthew was talking in general term in the concluding lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s story is more specifically about the urgent oppression in the troublesome near future. In some ways, Jesus’ words point to a future when hard times would come. When hard times come, the church could crumble, not because of the hard times but because she had not created a culture or lifestyle of understanding and obedience to Christ. Thus, instead of blaming the hard times the church can’t control, the blame should be placed on the church culture. The greatest enemy is internal. If a preacher wants to tackle this text, one good way is to put the storm at the end in the same way Jesus did it so that the emphasis is not so much the what, but the why of obedience.

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 8: Luke 6.43-49 Applications


This is a great week for me because my book receives a great review from Huffington Post by Jesus scholar Prof. Greg Carey who makes a methodological comparison between my work and that of another Jesus scholar, Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is someone whom I admire very much. I jokingly said that whenever I write about Jesus, the voice in my head is Levine’s. Yet, my book is deliberately different from Levine’s not because I don’t like what she does. I do. I just don’t think I can do what she does better.


I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 14-15 shows how setting the text in history of Luke’s reader would give proper applications.


The teaching of Jesus prepared the disciples not merely for lives of integrity. He was doing much more. He was teaching the disciples to deal with oppression. Jesus also taught about creating a community that should be circumspective and, more importantly, introspective in its judgment. The care members ought to take comes in the area of attitudes, words, and deeds.

For Theophilus, he was the default patron of the community. His literacy, privilege, and natural leadership would have allowed him to shape the attitude, words, and deeds of the community. As the head of this community, Theophilus would have recognized that the ultimate “lord” was Jesus Christ. In our free societies where individual rights are respected, we most likely don’t understand the word “lord” the same way as both the ancient author and reader. In Theophilus’s time, with the changing of Roman dynasties, the political flux demanded that he would choose the right master to ensure his own prosperity and political success. To call someone “lord” was to submit one’s life in its entirety. Yet, Luke used a lordship story to inform Theophilus about who the ultimate lord was, so that every decision he made in these uncertain times would reflect that relationship.

In terms of words, we ought to understand the way ancients viewed words. Jesus talked about the listening and practicing of his words. Leaders of his community would pass Jesus’ words down from generation to generation. Not only would they pass them down; they also had to put into practice these words. Just like when Jesus talked about leadership and teaching just prior in Luke 6:39–40, so Luke’s parable taught Theophilus about leadership and teaching. One special feature of the early Christ community was its continuation of the teaching tradition from the synagogue. Theophilus would eventually transmit Luke’s writing along with other traditions he received about Jesus. In those days, not everyone could use words to influence. Only the privileged and educated could do that because rhetorical training was only available to the most educated. Theophilus was among the privileged. When talking about words, we aren’t just talking about a literal faithfulness in passing down words of Jesus. We’re talking about using one’s privileged position to do the work of the kingdom. Jesus’ demand was precise. Words only meant something when they were modeled for recipients of the Christ community. Privilege was the means by which a person served that community. For someone like Theophilus, to call Jesus “lord” would by itself completely turn his world upside down, but for Luke, this was only the beginning. The words and deeds had to match for Theophilus to be a true disciple.

The context surrounding the discourse is oppression or persecution. The moral of Jesus’ teaching is quite simple. He wasn’t merely talking about listening and doing. He was talking about developing a strong community life in the habit of listening and doing, so much so that when persecution would come, nothing would shake and fall down.

Right Parables, Wrong Stories Intro 5: Luke 6.43-49 (I)


I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 9-10 regarding Luke 6.43-49 regarding fruit bearing, listening and doing … I start this installment by talking about how this parable could’ve been told differently. In the next installment, I’ll explain why Jesus told the parable in the manner in which he did.


Telling It Different: Luke 6:43–49

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles. The good person out of the good treasury of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasury produces evil, for his mouth speaks from what fills his heart. Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and don’t do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice—I will show you what he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.

The early followers of Jesus were students. Their religious institutions were an outgrowth of the synagogues, where listening and doing were an important part of their lives. Although illiteracy rate was high in those days (higher among Gentiles), believers would learn by hearing and reciting the teachings read by their literate leaders. After learning for a while, they would internalize the knowledge to apply in real life. Failure to practice would indicate ignorance.

This story Jesus told (as I have arranged it above) is talking about listening and doing. It claims that there are two different kinds of builders. The two-way teaching of Jesus is fairly common. Jesus often talked about making choices that were favorable or unfavorable in relation to kingdom values. Even with this modified version of the story, the moral of the story is very clear. Those who listen should also apply, but what exactly was Jesus saying here by telling his story the way he did? (to be continued)

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 6: Luke 6.43-49 (II)


I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 10-13 talks about the basic elements of the Luke 6.43-49 parable itself.


Telling It Normal: Key Elements in the Story

43 For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles. 45 The good person out of the good treasury of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasury produces evil, for his mouth speaks from what fills his heart. 46 Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and don’t do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice—I will show you what he is like: 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against that house, it collapsed immediately, and was utterly destroyed!

People with ADD often have other issues associated with the dysfunction. In my case, it’s mostly my dyslexia. When I’m tired, it’s hard for me to make sense of words, whether spoken or written. For others, they can’t stay on course in a single conversation because their minds are racing like a Formula One car around the track moving from scene to scene. Words however are important. Jesus here dealt with words.

The section of Luke 6:43–49 is a conclusion to Jesus’ speech (I will discuss the context of Jesus’ whole speech at the end of this section). Jesus’ speech concluded with two images: the fruit-bearing tree and the parable of the good builders. First, Jesus started with the fruit-bearing tree. He started with the negative stating that no good tree bears bad fruit. The words describing both the good and the bad are interesting. The “good” could describe something with good and healthy appearance, in an agricultural sense. The word “bad” denotes bad quality.

After Jesus spoke about the usefulness and health of trees, he began talking about humans. Since humans aren’t trees, Jesus used other Greek words for “good” and “evil” in Luke 6:45 that denote moral quality in humans. In other words, Jesus was saying that quality of a human would be analogical to quality of tree and its fruit. Thus, the morally good person who possesses a clear vision would bear fruit that benefits, much like figs and grapes would help the farmer. The morally bad person who possesses a muddled vision (with a deadly plank in his eye) would bear fruit that benefits no one. What then did Jesus consider the source of this goodness or evil? Luke 6:45 says that the quality of the person came from the heart.

The language he used to describe the heart resembles that of storage. No reasonable person puts rubbish in his storage. The rubbish belongs in the trash pile. The storage is for beneficial treasures one wishes to keep. Based on the metaphor, one’s heart ultimately brings forth good or evil words. Jesus concluded with a parable of the builder. This parable is a reinforcement of the previous one, especially regarding good work. This conclusion demonstrated to Jesus’ disciples that now that they had listened to Jesus, they needed to perform the compatible good work. The problem the builder story wants to address is in Luke 6:46. Many called Jesus “Lord” but didn’t do what Jesus said. The word “call” is in the Greek present tense (something different from the English present tense), denoting either a continuous or habitual action. In other words, Jesus was asking, “Why do you keep calling me Lord and do not (as a habit) do what I tell you to do?” The repetition of “hearing” in Luke 6:47 and 6:49 shows the context of the discourse for the disciples. These disciples were hearers, but were they doers? Now, they must perform what they heard.

We must read the saying on two levels. In Jesus’ time, before people really recognized his entire status, he was viewed as a respected teacher. The word for “lord” did not have to mean what it means for the church later. Within the story of Jesus in Luke, the repetition of “lord” shows the highest form of respect toward a revered holy man who could also perform miracles. For Jesus’ disciples, the saying could mean something like “Why do you keep on claiming that I’m your most revered mentor and not do what I tell you?” The logical incompatibility between the claim and the action is the point of the saying. For the churchly reader however, the saying would grow into a true understanding of all that Jesus meant to the church. Thus, readers should obey even more and not less, knowing all that they knew about Jesus in retrospect.

A careful reader will notice that in the modified telling of the story at the beginning of this chapter, I took out the storm that hit the houses. It is important to note that the missing storm makes what Jesus said somewhat less harsh. So what if people heard but didn’t do? There were no consequences (i.e., no storm). At worst, their laziness just made them bad people. However, there were consequences. The emphasis shouldn’t be taken away from the consequences. When a person did what Jesus taught, he would be like a man who has built deep foundation and remains unshakeable in the face of the storm-induced flood (Luke 6:48). Commentators interpret this storm in various ways, from divine judgment to the general storms of life. Within the close context of Luke 6:22–23, 26, 28, the storm seems to be persecution from enemies. What then happens if a disciple does not live by Jesus’ principles? He would be like a man who did not build a house on proper ground. Building a house on bad ground would be an amateurish mistake. Especially in denser cities, the people would build and cluster together. The chance of building on bad ground would be fairly low because people watched for where others built and then would build close to those areas. Thus, Jesus was talking about a near impossible situation unless it happened in a rural farming community. The well-learned disciple wouldn’t make such a mistake but maybe some did. If built on bad ground, the house would not be able to stand when storm water washed away its foundation (Luke 6:49). Thus, when dealing with a tough season, a person who followed Jesus’ principles would be able to withstand the persecution or opposition that would come (Luke 6:22).

What exactly did Jesus teach or what did they hear? For the answer, we need a broader understanding of what Jesus just taught within the event of the story. Let me summarize. In Luke 6:20–26, Jesus talked about disciples being aware of their place in the world as the persecuted “others.” In Luke 6:27–36, Jesus talked about how disciples were to react to oppression: with love and generosity. In Luke 6:37–42, Jesus talked about disciples as those who would be accurate and fair in judging while making sure they did not commit the same error. These are the basic teachings of Jesus, and he expected all those who called him Lord to follow them with love, generosity, fairness, and integrity.

While the fruit bearing metaphor speaks primarily of good work, the builder story extends further to the stormy part of living on this earth as disciples. Jesus was not contrasting a believer with an unbeliever. He was talking to his disciples. The builder story is in some ways more severe than the fruit tree metaphor because safety and lives are at stake with buildings. Safe buildings provide shelter. Shoddy buildings create liability and even death. Somewhere, some disciples will build their houses on the bad foundation of inconsistent lives, while claiming Jesus to be Lord. As they ignore his teachings, they will be like the builder who built a house on a bad foundation. The house will fall on the builder and destroy his life when hardship and persecution come.

While fruit bearing focuses on good judgment and good works, the good builder parable focuses on good works as a foundation of faith. Many who are from the Protestant Reformed tradition may find this troubling because Luke seems to be going against Paul’s theology of justification by free grace. This is not a description of a full soteriology. It is talking about the corporate body of the kingdom containing individual disciples who called Jesus “Lord.” Those calling Jesus Lord will build their faith on putting Jesus’ teachings into practice. We mustn’t read our theological concerns into Luke’s. It was natural in that society for people to obey whomever they called “lord.” Jesus’ words here are very much based on that system. Lordship implies thorough obedience. Lip service had never been enough when it came to “lordship” in Jesus’ society. Neither will it suffice for a vibrant faith today.

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 7: Luke 6.43-49 Context


I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 13-14 speaks of the context of Luke 6.43-49.


Let’s now look at the meaning of the images, especially the parable in context. Once more, the transition word at the head of the sentence in Greek is “for,” connecting the present discussion to what Jesus taught within the event of Luke 6:17–42. Jesus talked about the eye in Luke 6:41–42 in connection with the fruit bearing metaphor. In other words, good fruit comes from good vision. Why did Jesus want his disciples to judge properly? A self-righteous person is too blind to be a good teacher who bears good fruit. The good vision necessary for bearing good fruit is also essential to good judgment. Thus, the tree is compatible with the fruit it bears. The key, though, is having clear vision. Jesus then illustrated with different kinds of fruits what he meant by “good fruit.” He talked about fruits that could be eaten in Luke 6:44, figs and grapes. Neither figs nor grapes could be picked from thorns and briers. Thorns and briers were bad trees. They were of no value because they produced nothing for human consumption.

Within context, the logic of the whole teaching of the tree goes something like this. The “for” at the head of Luke 6:43 should cause us to connect between the teachings of Luke 6:43–45 with Luke 6:41–42. This reconstruction creates a clear message. Vision comes from an accurate self-evaluation. Such a clear vision is important so that when words come out, they will be like good fruits being beneficial to the recipient. In other words, the disciples’ words reflect the inner quality they possess. When reading these teachings, it is easy to get casual with them. Not being able to listen well is certainly a problem, but the problem lessens when there are no consequences. However, if one’s very life or death depends on listening, the problem of hearing and practice becomes much more serious. That really is what Jesus (or Luke) was saying. Listening but not doing has its price and the price is deadly. Jesus’ warning was stern. The text still speaks sternly now.

Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives Intro 4:


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I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from xii-xiv talks about the steps by which we can read parables that are both true to their original meanings and to their cultural context. The following is the excerpt.


In writing this book, I’m not only talking about Luke’s message, but also walking through an easily accessible method that both lay readers and preachers can use in their reading. I will consistently follow the following steps to show the possible meanings these fictional stories Jesus told might hold. Through this method, I hope to move the reading from the first-century world to twenty-first-century reality for anyone who seeks their relevance beyond literary entertainment.

To begin with, in the introduction that follows this preface, I will talk about Luke’s world and paint a picture of the readership that originally received his message. Certainly, Luke’s world was somewhat different from the world of Jesus and his followers. I’ll be mindful of the world of Jesus as well when reading the parables. One thing is certain: authors wrote to audiences.

As modern readers, we may want to think that the Gospel writers were writing to us. They weren’t! They were writing to an ancient audience within certain social conventions. Admittedly, my own experience as an Asian-American Christian with teaching experience in Asia may color my perspective. Such coloring may not be bad because there are some points of convergence between my own culture (or any other culture) and the biblical world. We shall see. In any case, having a background roadmap to navigate these stories from the perspective of the biblical audience is very important for modern understanding. This paradigm will be something that guides our ethical and homiletical reflection at the end of each parable, but we’re jumping ahead.

The first step to reading each parable, after we have reconstructed Luke’s world, is a reconstructive reading of the parable in an alternate way. In this first step, we look at one way Jesus could’ve told the parable. In this process, we should let the parable speak for itself instead of trying to theologize and moralize it. Quite often, in modern preaching, people do not let the parables speak for themselves but import their own narratives into them. There were obviously many possible ways to understand the parables in Jesus’ day. In this study, we’ll explore one way as a sample of how the parable could have functioned within its own cultural environment. I shall change what I consider the key element within the parable to see how the parable might have gone in a direction quite different from the intent of the storyteller. The characters of the parable will play an active role in determining how the story would have turned out. Another criterion I use in determining the key narrative element is the overall intent of the parable. In most parables, Jesus talks about what issue or question the parable is trying to address or answer. We can change the key element to address the issue in a different way and see what comes of it. In this step, I will provide my own altered version of the parable. Readers themselves can surely imagine other ways the parable could’ve been told to address the issue raised by Jesus and his situation.

In the second step, after coming up with an imaginary variation to the parable, I will establish the meaning of each parable as Jesus told it. In so doing, I will address the broader context from which the parable arose. How do I determine where the boundaries are for the broader context? It’s quite simple. I use the change of occasion and location in Luke’s story to determine the exact event that gives rise to Jesus’ parable. After discussion of the meaning of the parable, I will have a subsection called “context” to explore how narrative context influenced the formation of such a parable. This is an important element in determining the initial meaning a parable had for Jesus’ original audience. While range of meaning is a relatively open system, this step allows us to attend to what meanings are impossible and therefore narrows our scope. In this second step, we should be attentive to Jesus’ background if possible so that we don’t read Jesus outside of his own culture.

With the third step, after understanding the parable within Jesus’ context in Luke’s Gospel, we are ready to jump into more practical discussions. This third step has three phases. First, we discuss what Luke’s writing of the story would have meant to the original readers by connecting the meaning of the parable for Jesus’ audience with Luke’s readers. Second, we look at how the meaning from the original readers transfers to our world by looking at converging points between our culture and theirs. Third, we can look at how knowing all this can impact our preaching and Bible studies. The third step will provide some homiletic suggestions for busy preachers and Bible study questions for the busy Bible study leader. Here we’ll explore possible misreadings that can be found in the popular teaching of these parables. I’ll point out those pitfalls so that we can avoid future mishaps.

These three simple steps will always consider the metanarrative we’ve reconstructed from Luke’s world and they will highlight for us the possible and impossible meanings. This multidimensional reading will end up presenting a Jesus who was socially subversive for his time and ours. Readers will hopefully be able to follow and benefit from this intellectual exercise to further and deepen their personal reflections.

Right Parables Wrong Perspectives Intro 3: What if parables have imaginary varieties?

I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. xi-xii asks the important question that shows interpretation not only as a science but also as an art.


In Right Kingdom, I asked the question, “What if the parable gets turned upside down?” This is a legitimate question due to the subversive nature of Jesus’ parables. Jesus could’ve told his parables in many different ways, but he chose to tell them in one way. That one way triumphs over the many other ways.

In my colleague Sze-kar Wan’s back cover endorsement for Right Kingdom, he reminded me that Jesus’ parables can be told from “all sides and in all manners.” We must recognize that the backward way is not the only way to read a parable. In this study, I shall be more flexible. I ask a slightly different and wider question, “What if parables have imaginary varieties?” What if Jesus endorsed certain mentalities while attacking other mentalities? Whatever Jesus endorsed or attacked would show parts of his teaching that did or didn’t fit his society’s ideas.

Parables are cultural pieces, or as Amy-Jill Levine suggests, “short stories by Jesus.” These are fictional narratives created by Jesus out of the cultural milieu of his day. In other words, Jesus could have told his parables in an alternative way or two, but he chose to tell them the way he did. If we see Jesus’ parables as part of a larger cultural conversation, we should also attempt to imagine the other possible ways a parable could have be told, to appreciate its full meaning. Through our imaginative efforts, we can begin to get a glimpse of how value systems that favored or opposed Jesus’ value system might implicate our own modern way of looking at life. If we read Luke within the context of each event in Jesus’ life, we will find a consistent social message that flows from Luke’s understanding of the kingdom and the “gospel.”

I hope this book ultimately serves readers from all walks of life, as a part of a spiritual and ethical reflection, which will help shape the way we think and live. All scriptural translations are taken from the New English Translation, just as in Right Kingdom. I’m grateful to the NET for granting me permission to use their translation.